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‘Critical window’ warning for European plastics industry

The manufacture and recovery of plastics in Europe need significant changes to meet long-term circularity and net zero emission targets, according to a new report. The authors say the next three to five years are ‘a critical window for action’.

‘Long technology maturity cycles and capex lock-in for large infrastructure investments mean that the decisions taken in the early 2020s will determine whether the European plastics system will achieve a circular economy and net zero GHG emissions by 2050,’ they warn.

Reshaping Plastics – Pathways to a Circular, Climate Neutral Plastics System in Europe, a 12-month project produced by the systems-change company Systemiq, finds that current industry and policy actions could more than double circularity from 14% to 30% by 2030 but that would still leave a highly resource inefficient system unable to meet international climate change goals. The report focuses on four of the most important plastic-using sectors: packaging, household goods, automotive, and construction which account for 75% of total European plastic demand and 83% of known post-consumer waste generation.

It concludes there is no ‘silver bullet’ to significantly reduce waste disposal and emissions.

‘To date, many stakeholders have focused on either “upstream” (pre-consumer, such as material redesign, plastic reduction, and substitution) or “downstream” (post-consumer, such as mechanical and chemical recycling) solutions. Our analysis shows that this is a false dichotomy. Ambitious adoption of circular economy approaches in the plastics value chain, applying upstream and downstream solutions together, can drive significant reductions in GHG emissions and waste disposal in the next decade and beyond.’

Even so, the report argues these actions will not be enough to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and multiple less mature, innovative technologies and approaches will be needed.

‘This rigorous and extensive report should act as a clarion call for all European stakeholders involved in plastics,’ says Jyrki Katainen, president of the Finnish innovation fund Sitra and chair of the report’s steering committee. ‘One of the report’s key findings is that the European plastics system is already adapting to address the challenges of climate change mitigation and circularity but commitments on behalf of industry and policymakers do not go far or fast enough.’

Yoni Shiran, programme director and partner at Systemiq, adds: ‘A new plastics system is within reach but will require bold action. It needs industry, public sector, investors, and civil society to come out of their trenches and collaborate in a deeper way based on a shared fact-base.’

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